Engine room safety is paramount.
The best skippers have always been the most vigilant ones, whether that means being aware of threats from other vessels, noticing changes in weather and sea conditions, or knowing about navigational hazards. But how many boat owners pay proper attention to one of the potentially dangerous places aboard a boat: the engine room?
If something goes wrong on a boat, chances are it will happen where there are hot, rapidly moving objects and flammable substances nearby. The threat of such a mishap never fully disappears, even when the boat is tied to the dock, where potential trouble is only minimized.
Many of us have no intention of going into the engine room while the boat is underway, but spend enough time on a boat and you will have to, whether it’s to investigate an alarm or because you sense something’s wrong. That’s why it’s a commonsense practice to be prepared to enter a “live” engine room, and that means protecting yourself and the crew.
Rule number one is to wear ear protection: Protect your hearing or lose it. Don’t rely on earplugs (or wadded-up tissue paper); purchase a good pair of acoustical earmuffs and designate a place near the entrance where they will hang. A set of 3M earmuffs works great and costs about $20. Also, a pair of tight-fitting mechanic gloves are a good idea, because most everything in a live engine room is hot enough to burn skin. For further protection from burns, wear a sweatshirt, even though the engine room’s temperature argues against it. Just make sure it fits snugly.
The engine(s) should be at idle before anyone enters the engine room, but while the prop shaft may not be turning, other things will be. A main cause of injury in an engine room is encountering moving parts. Minimize those chances by not wearing loose-fitting clothing and jewelry.
Next is lighting. If you can’t see a potential hazard, you’ll have trouble avoiding it. Newer boats have pretty good overhead lighting while many older boats do not. But engine rooms are notorious for having shadowed nooks and crannies. Overhead lighting will only go so far. Supplement it with a portable lamp or a high-intensity flashlight that throws a powerful, tightly focused beam.
Unfortunately, engine room mishaps often occur when the space is unoccupied, and often the culprit is the improper handling and/or storage of flammable materials. Certain things should never be in an engine room, among them are spare lube oil, all solvents and all rags, even clean ones. Engine rooms contain petroleum- based fumes that rags can absorb. If they absorb enough fumes, spontaneous combustion and fire can result.
Then there are batteries. It’s surprising how often they are improperly installed, either with an insecure mounting or without a dedicated container (e.g., vented battery box). Another common failure results from missing or misplaced positive protection — you know, that annoying red plastic cap. It’s there for a reason, to prevent arcing across the battery terminals — it only takes a dropped tool — and sparks are not something you want in your engine room.
Finally, there are oil leaks. Hot oil is particularly combustible, so if your engine is a dripper, place an absorbent mat under the leak and change it often. Even a smidge of oil is problematic and should be wiped up immediately. Oil and fuel leaks are a primary cause of fires, so owners need to frequently check the condition of all hoses and fittings, especially if the boat has an older engine. Rubber does not last forever, so replace aged hoses before they fail.